I have had the debate many, many times about individual versus corporate responsibility in creating environmental change. I’ve had this debate with others, and I constantly have it with myself. I would like to lay out both sides, and then argue for what I think is necessary.
On one side, there is the argument that in order to avoid negative environmental impacts, individuals should eat less meat, shop sustainably, bike to work, etc. The logic for this rests on the case that companies follow consumer demands, and if consumers demand sustainability, companies will follow.
On the other hand, there is the argument that placing the blame on individuals to pursue environmentally-friendly actions is a ploy by corporations to shrug off any real responsibility for the problems they’ve caused. The real duty for environmental protection lies with corporations, regardless of how many people shop locally or compost.
It is IMPOSSIBLE for the average consumer to make all the “right” choices. We live in a society that is purposefully and thoroughly set up to persuade consumers to make the easiest, cheapest decisions. We read the label, it sounds good, and we go on with our lives. We as consumers and humans are worried about enough things within our personal spheres, and we cannot possibly be expected to know how much someone was paid to grow the food we eat or how many tons of carbon dioxide were emitted to make the shirt we want to buy or how much of a difference us driving to the gym rather than taking the bus really makes. Corporations do not want conscious consumers. They thrive on a society build on comfort and convenience. If everyone cared about everything, how would another box of Oreo cookies will ever be sold (in case you missed it, Oreos have been linked to rainforest deforestation and child labor) ? There are a million problems in the world and if we aren’t careful, we may find ourselves burying our heads in the sand to avoid them all. Individuals cannot be expected to solve these problems alone– corporations must do the heavy lifting.
However, the case for corporate responsibility is often wrongly used as an excuse for foregoing any sort of personal environmental responsibility. For those of us with the knowledge and access to alternatives, we cannot sit back and point fingers at Hershey  for driving deforestation while we munch on our palm oil-filled s’mores. For those of us that consider ourselves environmentalists, we KNOW better. We KNOW the effects that plastic production has on ocean pollution. We KNOW the effects that unsustainable palm oil has on rainforests. We KNOW the effects that eating meat has on climate change. We KNOW who is being most negatively impacted by the Chevron refinery in Richmond. If we don’t know, there are so many avenues for engagement and education to learn more.
My point is this: the KNOWING. An easy criticism of environmentalists is saying, “If you care so much, why are you still driving a car?” Of course I would love to see all of my environmentally-minded friends who have the means to reduce their meat consumption or plastic intake or driving time, but I cannot venture into the realm of asking, or even wanting, everyone to live a perfectly eco-conscious life. We live in a society where environmental degradation is embedded in nearly every action we take, and living a life without impact would be all but impossible to do unless you live off the grid (and even then, who knows how low-impact your life would be? But that’s a different argument).
Because of this, when I advocate for personal environmentalism, I do not necessarily mean bringing your own utensils every time you eat or walking everywhere. I am advocating for a broad and purposeful awareness of the impacts of our actions. You can care about the environment and still eat meat, but you need to understand the environmental impacts of that decision, and how those impacts are ingrained in our society. As someone who knows and cares, on any scale, I believe you have a duty to avoid burying your head in the sand for the sake of personal comfort. Once you understand the nuanced impacts, you can make your decision, and no one will be able to call you a hypocrite. But the most frustrating thing for me is to see my friends take part in practices that have negative environmental impacts and willfully avoid information that might prompt them to change their minds. I truly don’t care if you know and then don’t change your mind, or if you just simply didn’t realize that there was anything to know in the first place, but I do care if you are actively choosing ignorance. Environmentalists are supposed to be the people that care; if we don’t understand the impacts of our actions and attempt to change things, then who will?
With all of this being said, degrees of individual responsibility are enormously varied. Many environmental discourses today ignore the fact that different groups have been shopping in “bulk” for generations, long before trendy Instagram influencers picked up on it. Organic produce is expensive, and access to produce in general is limited in many communities. Thrift shopping is something done out of necessity for some, and the cost is now being driven up by people hoping to reduce their environmental impact. Some who take the bus may aspire to own a car instead. The face of many environmental lifestyle blogs is often that of a white woman. The irony of it all is that climate change and environmental degradation will, and does, affected the most marginalized folks in society. There is a reason the Chevron refinery is built in Richmond rather than in Marin. And when you throw things into the trash, who lives closest to the landfill it ends up in? If environmentalism as we know it and practice it does not fully encapsulate environmental, social, and economic justice, then who is environmentalism really for for? It is imperative to understand that responsibility exists along a spectrum, ranging from corporations to marginalized communities, with a wide range of people in between.
In summary, we have a lot of problems, but no clear way to fix them. I have rewritten this article several times because I keep changing my mind about what is important, whose actions matter, and why the very notion of environmentalism is problematic in the first place. We need to hold corporations accountable, but we can’t sit back and eat from our (plastic) silver spoons and point fingers while we wait for change to come to us. We need all hands on deck. Most importantly, we need a deck built upon justice for all. If people want to push for single-use plastic bans and local produce, they have to make sure they look at who they are actually helping and who is being left behind.